NAIROBI (AlertNet) - Hunger is likely to persist among people caught up in conflict in Sudan’s border states, despite a government promise to allow food relief into areas that aid groups warn are on the verge of famine.
Sudan agreed on June 27 to a plan proposed earlier this year by the African Union, United Nations and Arab League to get humanitarian aid to civilians in areas of South Kordofan and Blue Nile states controlled by a rebel group, the Sudan People's Liberation Movement North (SPLM-N).
But many are cynical about the implementation of the deal. Some experts say Khartoum’s acceptance of the initiative appears to be a diplomatic move to strengthen its hand in negotiations with rival South Sudan, which resumed on July 5.
“They [Khartoum] need to improve their position vis a vis international players,” said Jason Mosley of the London-based think tank Chatham House.
“They want to give a little bit of rhetorical – and maybe even some genuine – access on the humanitarian front … to get some folks off their back on this issue so that they are in a stronger position to put pressure on South Sudan.”
Fighting broke out in the border areas last year between the government and rebels of the SPLM-N, a division of the south’s army during Sudan’s 1983-2005 civil war.
Aid agencies, for their part, are concerned about the conditions the agreement imposes on their activities.
“The government has laid out operational conditions that do not allow for the delivery of assistance by neutral parties in SPLM-N controlled areas,” U.N. Emergency Relief Coordinator Valerie Amos said in a statement on June 29.
“Hundreds of thousands of people remain trapped in the conflict zone with little access to food, water, shelter and medical services.”
Up to 1,000 refugees a day have been crossing the border from Sudan into neighbouring South Sudan and Ethiopia, fleeing the conflict which has prevented many from growing or harvesting food.
“The new arrivals are in a desperate state, with large numbers of children in urgent need of treatment for malnutrition,” said Amos, calling for aid agencies to be given “unimpeded and complete access” to the conflict zones in South Kordofan and Blue Nile.
On June 10, the World Food Programme and the Sudan Red Crescent Society started distributing food aid to 108,000 people in six localities in government-controlled parts of South Kordofan, following a joint assessment mission.
But determining the size of the population in these areas is difficult because “people are on the run”, according to WFP’s spokeswoman in Khartoum, Amor Almagro.
Some 40 percent of those receiving food aid have fled from territory held by the SPLM-N, she said.
Under the so-called “Tripartite Initiative”, aid is to be distributed in rebel-held areas of South Kordofan and Blue Nile by the Sudanese Red Crescent and “and other NGOs [non-governmental organisations] approved by the Government of Sudan” in accordance with nine principles.
The meaning of some of these principles is open to interpretation. For example, does affirmation of “the sovereignty of the Government of Sudan in supervising humanitarian aid operations in all territories of Sudan” mean the government could insist on delivering aid to rebel-held territory?
“Khartoum has employed one of its classic strategies: the government publicly states acceptance of a proposal it had essentially rejected earlier, but places restrictive conditions on the implementation of that proposal,” said Aly Verjee of the Rift Valley Institute think tank, speaking to AlertNet from Burundi.
In an editorial, the Khartoum-based Sudan Vision newspaper praised the deal for blocking “attempts to impose pressures on Sudan to allow for the entrance of dubitable aid groups to the affected areas without control or monitoring”.
It advised the government to “deal cautiously” with agencies that want “to exploit the humanitarian assistance cover to serve agendas that have nothing to do with its [their] humanitarian mission”.
Sudan and South Sudan, which split into separate states last year, have clashed repeatedly in their contested borderlands, while rows over oil payments have continued to stoke tensions. The two edged dangerously close to resuming full-blown war in April when Juba seized the Heglig oil region, before withdrawing in the face of international pressure.
Both sides accuse the other of supporting rebel groups in their territory, while denying the charges made against them.
Chatham House’s Mosley said there is “a real prospect” that South Sudan is supporting its former allies, the SPLM-N, and that Khartoum’s humanitarian concessions could increase pressure on Juba to stop aiding the insurgency.